Fire at a Historically Black Church in Venice Renews Community Cries for Preservation

Activists describe ”suspicious circumstances” around the fire, sparked just days after national media attention on the church’s historic significance

A fire was reported overnight at 685 Westminster Avenue in Venice, the former site of the First Baptist Church of Venice, a historically Black and Latino congregation, located in the Oakwood neighborhood for a century.

According to Patch Venice, the fire appears to have been intentionally set–though no suspect or cause has been confirmed–and it comes just days after a feature on the church’s historic status as a place of worship for Black and Latino Angelenos and recent function as a gathering place for anti-racism activists was published by National Geographic. 

The building has become a symbol of the neighborhood’s gentrification. In 2017, the building the church then occupied, constructed in 1968, was bought by media billionaire Jay Penske and his wife, model Elaine Irwin, in an off-market transaction done without community input. The couple intend to convert the property into a lavish private residence; that plan has been met with resistance and legal challenges.

During the summer, the Los Angeles Times observed a banner hung outside the building reading, “Black Lives Matter? Give us back our Black church, Penskes!”

While the congregation has since transitioned to another facility, some church-goers and neighbors took action to prevent the conversion, in what they characterized as an attempt to retain some connection to Oakwood’s historic character, staging weekly sit-ins and, more recently Black Lives Matter memorials and rallies.

“It just sparked something in me,” Laddie Williams, a lifelong Oakwood resident, told National Geographic of the first time she seeing the saw the church post-sale, doors locked, windows busted out. “I felt my duty was to go and save that history that has been so prevalent in the community for over 100 years. So I started sitting.”

Williams told Los Angeles in 2018 that her grandfather, Henry Williams Sr., helped pour the foundation for the church’s original building, constructed on the site in the 1920s. The Williams family had come from Georgia and Tennessee at the turn of the century, moving west in hopes of finding a life free from racial persecution and segregation.

After the fire, which Patch reports reached through to the second floor of the church building, neighbors have gathered outside yet again, forming a circle and calling on the Los Angeles City Council to preserve the building.

Attempts to have the structure designated as a historic-cultural landmark have not succeeded in the past. The Cultural Heritage Commission declined to designate the building as a landmark, though in January city council did ratify a plan requiring the new owners of the church to preserve the “facade and aesthetic,” something which Venice Councilmember Mike Bonin described at the time as “achieving many of the goals of landmark designation.”

More recently, however, he’s asked for the matter to be reviewed again.

“I think the city owes this a second look,” he told the Times in July. “I think the city—and I—owe it to the Black community in Venice to take another look and to try to help preserve what’s an important legacy.”

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